Interview with JBF Award Nominee Jessica Largey of Manresa

 

Epicureans from around the country travel to the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains to get a taste of Manresa, where chef de cuisine Jessica Largey executes thoughtful, inventive, and elegant fare that’s steeped in the rich terroir of Northern California. Below, the 2014 nominee for our Rising Star Chef of the Year Award fills us in on her ideal kitchen playlist, earliest food memory, and thoughts on gender politics in the restaurant industry.

 

JBF: How would you describe your culinary style? 

 

Jessica Largey: I’d say that I have a naturalist approach, which is definitely something I’ve developed while at Manresa. I like using techniques that are purposeful and preserve the integrity of the product.  

 

JBF: What’s your favorite item on the current Manresa menu?

 

JL: I really love the spring lamb dish that I just put on the menu. The lamb is cooked four ways and served with chickpeas and chamomile. It’s light but still allows the rich flavor of the lamb come across. 

 

JBF: Tell us about your first impression of David Kinch, who’s also nominated for a Beard Award this year.

 

JL: I was paired up with David at a guest chef dinner when I was working at Providence in Los Angeles, and we got along right away. I really appreciated his style and was taken by a conversation we had about cooking with all your senses, and listening to the food in different ways. 

 

Manresa interior

 

JBF: There are a lot of women in the Manresa kitchen, a rarity in high-profile kitchens. Can you give us any insight into that? 

 

JL: The amount of women here ebbs and flows and we now actually have a pretty balanced kitchen again. Including our pastry and baking departments, the staff as a whole is exactly 50/50—but our kitchen management remains all female. I think that, more than anything, the dynamic depends on the individuals and we are lucky enough to have had a lot of talented people cook here. There was a time a little while back, though, when we were almost all women and it was fun to have that. It is rare and I think it was great for us to experience. It illustrated that gender politics in professional kitchens have shifted, and hopefully soon won’t be such a constant topic. It wasn’t just that we were women, though; we were a group of strong, seasoned, hardworking cooks that stood out because of performance and then everyone noticed we were all females. It really just happened one day; nobody realized until we were in it. 

 

JBF: What’s your go-to spot to eat out when you’re not working?

 

JL: My favorite local place is a Vietnamese restaurant called Turtle Tower on Larkin Street in San Francisco. I could eat there every day and I always get #6: Pho Bo Ap Chao Nuoc. There’s something so healing about pho and they make a very different style there. I like this dish, in particular, because everything is seared in a wok before it goes into the broth, even the noodles. The broth is so clean to begin with, but then takes on this charred, fatty richness that coats your palate.

 

JBF: What’s your dream culinary travel destination, and why?

 

JL: Everywhere! My dream is to travel the world and cook with little old ladies in each place.

 

JBF: What’s one of your favorite cookbooks, and why? 

 

JL: I love Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras. For me, it’s the foundation of what I love about cooking. It’s a book that never gets old and inspires my mind in such a fantastic way.

 

Manresa interior

 

JBF: Since the theme of this year’s Awards is music: what’s playing in the Manresa kitchen during prep and service?

 

JL: We actually started playing music in the kitchen for the first time this January. The rule is that everyone has to partake, so it ranges all over the spectrum and it offers great insight into each person. As far as my playlist goes, I’m a huge music fan and my tastes range but I really like working to music with soul, such as: Etta James, Otis Redding, Prince, David Bowie, The Clash, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc. And working for Michael Cimarusti trained me to work best to reggae, so I always throw some Bob Marley into the mix.

 

JBF: If you could cook for anyone, who would it be and what would you make?

 

JL: My grandma. She instilled a love of food in me and was an avid gourmet. We spent all of our time together cooking and talking about food. Cooking was always a hobby of mine growing up but, unfortunately, she passed away when I was 16 and I never got to tell her that I’d decided to be a chef. I’ve always thought that I would cook abalone for her—but little did I know that it was her absolute favorite. My mom told me that after she saw the Manresa cookbook cover. I find it funny since abalone is a staple at Manresa and a big part of my culinary career.

 

JBF: What’s your earliest food memory? 

 

JL: Making scrambled eggs when I was five years old. I got up before my parents to make them and then got in trouble for using the stove by myself. But I haven’t stopped cooking since that day!

 

 

The 2014 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year is presented by
S. Pellegrino Sparkling Natural Mineral Water. For more videos and stories, visit FineDiningLovers.com.

 

Elena North-Kelly is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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